Edupunk: It's Alien vs Predator With Relevance of Universities at Stake

Much to my daughter’s dismay, I like Green Day.  Maybe they’ve mellowed since the early 90’s.  Maybe I just need overdriven guitars and liberally sprinkled f-bombs to balance my ITunes™ playlists.  There is no doubt however that there was much concern in the family when I proclaimed 21st Century Breakdown album of the decade: “My Dad can’t like my favorite band!” I’ll admit I was slow to come around.  Back in the days before Georgia Tech had a College of Computing, the School of Information and Computer Science had a punk rock band with a marginally offensive name, and it didn’t catch my fancy.  Band members are now highly regarded professors at Georgia State, Vanderbilt and Clemson.  It took me twenty-five years but I’m starting to see the point.

On the other hand, I got the point of Edupunk right away:

[it] is about the utter irresponsibility and lethargy of educational institutions and the means by which they are financially cannibalizing their own mission.[1]

According to Jim Groom, the educational technology specialist at Virginia’s University of Mary Washington who invented the term “Edupunk”, “The whole idea is a reaction to the over-engineered, badly designed and intellectually constraining technology that has been foisted onto the American higher education system as a substitute for deep reflection about what universities should be evolving into.” Just like the early punk rockers invented forms for themselves, Edupunk is a catchy — and cheerily anarchistic —  way of thinking about DIY in educational technology. Like the punk rockers, Edupunkers don’t mind alienating the  establishment.  They are not without adult supervision, though.

There is a growing punk movement among mainstream educators, a reaction to recent trends in American higher education that in their view are taking colleges down a dead-end path. It is a sentiment that I share.  I’ll have more to say about the Edupunk movement in my book on the Fate of American Colleges and Universities in the 21st Century, but there is an interesting WWC collision at work here, and since I had such a great response to Dancing With the Stars,  I thought it was worth mentioning it.

No less authority than Clayton Christensen (of Innovator’s Dilemma fame) has noticed that higher education has gone all-in for an organizing principle that equates factory-like efficiency with effectiveness.  His 2008 book with Curtis Johnson and Michael Horn[2] is  a complete and damning analysis of the approach to standardized higher education that fires the Edupunk movement.

I was stuck between worlds when I was Dean of the College of Computing at Georgia Tech.  On one hand, I was a prime customer for technology that would genuinely improve operations in an environment where generating a payroll report or even simple analytics to predict enrollments seemed beyond the organization’s capability. On the other hand, I watched in horror the purchase and deployment of  expensive, awkward course management systems (CMS) that are the educational equivalent of the industrial-weight enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems  used to connect customer acquisition and financial processes to supply chain systems in large corporations.  You could almost hear Clay Christensen’s “Tut-tut!” as briefing after briefing made it clear that CMS was there to group and chunk and synchronize when, in the classroom, the real need was for specialization and personalization.

Six-sigma has hit higher education, and trends like CMS and outcome-based assessment combined with layer after layer of accreditation and bureaucratic program review — with their focus on documents, processes and repeatability – are exactly what has  the Edupunks up in arms.  Edupunk has with increasing frequency attracted the attention of VC’s like Union Square Ventures (think Twitter), whose Hacking Education conference brought together long-tail innovators and others who believe that one-size fits all standardized institutions have a real problem.

I’ll let you decide which roles are played by Alien and Predator, but I want to be clear about my vote: factory models have no place in colleges and universities. There are no statistical control charts for higher education, and models borrowed from manufacturing and social science are leading college administrators seriously astray.  The real disruptors are MIT’s Open Courseware, peer-to-peer tutoring of the sort I talked about in last week’s post, games, social networking sites like Atlanta’s OpenStudy.com, and online exchanges. These are the worlds that are colliding, and if they do, the next economic bubble to burst will be American higher education.


[1] How Web-Savvy Edupunks are Transforming Higher Education” by Anya Kamanetz, Fast Company, September 1, 2009

[2] Clayton Christensen, Curtis Johnson and Michael Horn, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, McGraw-hill

8 comments
  1. It’s a tough call. Personally i’d give the punks the Alien tag, simply because the Predators are the ones who have always had the control – or think they had – and a lot of the big beasts out there are just out for anarchy. (Yes, im a sci-fi nut). But this whole debate – fight – fascinates me. For my money though I think we’re about to get an Academic Napster, and I don’t think it’s going to be a punk, I think it’s going to come from the inside, maybe Apple. Ive been collecting all these articles up in one place, kind of like a countdown if you want to take a look: http://psychfutures.ning.com/profiles/blogs/2009-the-year-edupunks-killed

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    • richde said:

      Thanks for the pointer to the articles. I agree: a fsscinating fight. I think the VC’s would agree that some commercial operation will give form to whatever services or products come out of this. Seems completely unclear what the form that will be though.

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  2. Jonathon Richter said:

    Look at the Gardner Hype Cycle relevant to EdTech and you’ll see the Learning Management System is plateauing out pasture into obsolescence. Networks of user-created content are indeed, as Christensen et al. predict, going to be the first wave of disruptive innovation that will finally topple the 150+ years of educational stagflation… regardless of what the so called “edupunks” do. Gardner Campbell thinks the term is inappropriate. Jim Groom is overly smug about his inventing it before it’s seen to matter for the price of printing his bumper sticker. I was a self-styled punk in the early ’80’s and heartily believe that there WAS something special and great and different about the intelligent punk back then — that which Green Day, Nirvana, etc. now reflect only in the most commercial sense today in my opinion (they’re too hypocritical, like many of us). Keep innovating at the margin! But also… because of these extraordinary times: innovate from the core, too: fight the power!

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  3. beki70 said:

    I grew up with punk my understanding of it was that it was a form of social critique. From what I recall of various reading Malcolm McLaren’s Sex Pistols were as much about as exploring the boundaries of institutions as they were about the music (reading of their lyrics suggests this, God Save the Queen, EMI etc…).

    So, wearing my socially informed design hat, I’m not sure I want punk systems. I want an edupunk that doesn’t rush to problem solution, but spends time critiquing the status quo. In general I want more time for problem discovery. At least for me punk was less about what was produced, especially musically, but the institutions it took up and examined through the music, and through the institutional channels that regulate and govern the dissemination and consumption of music.

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  4. I largely agree with your POV, and am reminded of some personal experiences of universities to resist change (GT in the 90’s with Baldridge-type quality improvement efforts, and UCI in the 60’s and 70’s with edtech de jour) and a study (don’t have a reference) that the only organizations that exist today in largely the form they were in 500 years ago are the Roman Catholic Church, the Parliament of Iceland, and 63 universities.

    A relevant pointer regarding ed tech efforts to disrupt is a foundation led by a friend, Art Bushkin, http://www.stargazer.org/

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